What It Means To Be The Daughter Of An Indo-African Brahmin By Naina Ramavrat

Home is where the heart is. Yours was trapped between two distant lands, not actually belonging between either of them.

Your skin brown like chestnuts, nutmeg eyes, hair black like the feathers of a crow, your accent unfamiliar as your dialect consisted of five distinct languages. Brahmin was your ‘varna’ (caste) from birth as it was for your grandparents and parents. You were rightfully born into this sect specialising particularly as priests, teachers, and protectors of sacred learnings across generations. This caste is regarded as the highest of all four, holding a certain way of life to lead.

‘Bapuji’ (great grandfather) under British rule sailed across the seas from India to Uganda helping build the Kenya-Uganda railway. After six years of hard indenture he settled.

I wonder how many of his fellow workers were killed by Tsavo (man eating) lions including through dangerous accidents.

Father, you were a Ugandan ‘wananchi’ (citizen) India & Africa was declared independent just before your birth. Your Brahmin upbringing was present, so were the indentations of colonial rule even after the British left. I imagine you and your siblings helping plant sugar cane, eating them to your hearts content, when mature.

Before age seven, the fields were your playground, climbing mango trees, milking cows, collecting hens’ eggs, splashing in lakes especially on hot days. Lake Victoria?

Did you wake up to the rooster calling in the morning?

I’ve heard that when it rains in Uganda the droplets are like water filled diamonds falling from the sky.

Did you play in the mud potholes filled with water giggling away?

How wonderful it must have been growing up on a sugar cane plantation, collecting the crops to sell. Your family were agriculturists.

Oh, how my imagination wonders….

Winston Churchill described Uganda as ‘The pearl of Africa’ with stone sculptures of the crested crane, (national bird of Uganda) standing on one leg to symbolise the country moving forward.

I imagine the sun painted in the evening sky with soft shades of pastels: pink, orange, and indigo. Fireflies flashing neon-blue lights, while crickets chirped.

Was the sunset surreal?

Indian women wearing saris, and salwar kameez in bright shiny colours, their glitter coated bangles glistening in the sun’s reflection. Communities of Punjabi, Hindu, Sikh, Ismaili, and Goan. All having one thing in common their skin colour. Brown.

Learning Sanskrit (ancient language of India) must have taken time, I hope you enjoyed it.

Vegetarian cuisine was a must as your caste does not condone violence, or killing of animals, no toxic ailments, having to be purified if a member of this caste meets anything or anyone that is deemed unclean. Eating meat were for the castes below such as the kshatriyas as they were the warriors who needed energy and strength in battle or the Dalits (untouchables) who could only afford waste meat.

‘Ba’ (grandma) use to call ‘Isu’ your pet name. I hear you calling Nini, however the memory sometimes becomes glitchy through the years.

I wonder how life was in Uganda for you, Was Kampala (capital of Uganda) busy? The bustle of the markets and street sellers, noisy? Peddle pushers selling ice-cream cones, African women wearing their brightly coloured kanga’s carrying ‘Matoke’ (plantain one staple food of Africa) on their heads whilst their babies were swathed in cloths on their backs.

What was ‘little India’ like in Kampala? Is that where you shopped with your family to buy spices, rice, clothes, what were your ‘marafiki’ (friends) and school like?

Oh, how curious I am to know…

The river Nile had an accomplice using its stretched beauty to disguise the crimson colour that lay way beneath the surface. Even the crocodiles could sense mischief, waiting silently to devour evils gift. The sky grew angry, the turmeric sun shuddered withdrawing its rays not wanting to be visible to the scheming that lie ahead.

Rumour has it that President Idi Amin Dada (president of Uganda) had a business meeting with an Indian investor who brought his beautiful daughter along, the General was attracted to her and offered her a date; one that she could not refuse -it was a command! The lady declined, peacefully leaving, her refusal angered the president so much so, that after the encounter he demanded 80,000 Indians leave.

However, the reason given from the horse’s mouth was that he was ‘guided by god’ in his dream to expel Asians; giving them 90 days to pack up and go.

The countdown had begun, the African Ugandans would take over the Asians businesses and homes, anyone who disobeyed the general Amin faced ‘sitting on fire’ or would be sent to concentration camps where death awaited them or they would receive the ‘helicopter treatment’ (being dropped from high height into the river Nile where the crocodiles would swoon in for their delivery).

Many fishermen found human arms and legs instead of fish. The Queen asked for clemency which was ignored outrightly. The poorest Indians drowned themselves as their fate was sealed for them, knowing they could not escape alive. The ‘kondos’ (thief/armed robbers) with machetes were on a high as the military were given orders to subordinate the Asians through any means necessary. The ‘Kondos’ chopped a finger off with a ring on it, arm off with a watch/bangle still attached, that is how they stole.

Many African and Indians with high status disappeared without a trace later finding out the president had them hung and stored in warehouses. Many African tribes were in danger too. The rules/laws changed daily, one thing was for certain that the countdown was happening and families like my fathers needed to get out.

‘Eti Muhindi’ (go back to India) ‘Madukawala’ (shopkeeper go back) the ‘Mzungus’ (whites) brought you here, now go back. Many poor innocent lives were lost.

My father along with his family came to England (London) in 1976, when he was 24 years old. The feeling of leaving must have been immense perhaps relief as being alive and safe was a blessing.

I know the British had mixed emotions about the Asians coming to ‘their’ ‘small’ Island, many were very helpful and welcoming, others not so much.

Dad was bilingual, speaking English and his native mother tongue with family and friends. His family settled and worked but it was never fair. They faced prejudice, there were many slogans and banners stating ‘go back to where you came from’.

Where could they go? My family were kicked out of their ‘home’. Many protests were led by the Indians against racism. There was a large diaspora in England anyway due to colonial rule, but nobody wanted to understand nor accept that.

My mother came to England from Malawi age 12, she did not attend school here as it was too dangerous, her parents did not even consider using the ‘bussing’ method where Indian children were taken to school on a bus outside of their area arriving and leaving school and hour before and later compared to others so they did not face racial brutality.

I read about a Sikh boy who was on his way home from school in the 70’s (Southall), he was murdered but the police did not manage to find his killers stating ‘it’s only Indian blood’.

I was born here in 1988, I remember my early years very clearly. I think the noose on dads’ neck was tight as he was in constant reminder of his Brahmin caste. My mother was from a different caste, it was evident to see. Mum didn’t mind eating on the floor with her family using their hands (practiced in parts of India) dad preferred to sit at the table.

Whenever there would be disagreements their caste would be on show, I never really understood that as a child.

Why was it of such importance?

Mum would have to wear a traditional sari when visiting my paternal grandmother, my dad dressed in a suit, my grandmother also called my mum a different name. a name to her liking that was perhaps more Brahmin.

The look on my dads face when he would come home with sugar cane and exotic fruits, Mangoes, papaya, passion fruit, lychees, Guava. He would have such a big smile on his face especially as I tried them all. I loved chewing on the sugar cane the sweet juice trickling down my throat.

Did it remind you of home dad?

My parents never spoke of ‘home’ much only the odd time my mother would mention ‘Kamuzu Banda’ (ex-prime minister of Malawi) stating he wanted Asians out, if they didn’t leave they would shoot them dead (my mother use to always make a gun sign with her hands when explaining this detail).

Our home was filled with culture. The Indian movies where the costumes were regally elegant, patterned jewellery that dazzled holding my gaze, the dances/movements orchestrated to tell a story of mostly love. But there was always a villain. I learned through those movies that love was pure enough to overcome evil. Just like Rama rescuing his love Sita from the demon king Ravana. ‘Agarbatti’ (incense sticks) were burned and the smoke would fill the room with scents of sandalwood, jasmine, and rose.

The neighbours didn’t approve, neither did they of mothers cooking, she would leave the kitchen window open for ventilation.

I always thought of her cooking pot as a cauldron, she would throw all these seeds in and they would sizzle and pop creating a pungent aroma. Then the spices would go in; turmeric, garam masala, coriander powder, chilli, etc. We would eat samosas, paratha, (spiced roti) mango pickle, chicken curries vegetable curries, ‘supari’ (mouth freshener after meals). The magic food from her cauldron sure was yum!

My mum was fair and she did cook English dinners too like school lunches. In school we didn’t have a varied menu like we have today. I would try African food at my aunties house, (maternal uncles’ wife)

I would often hear the neighbours say ‘pakis, their house stinks of curry’ my fathers’ car was vandalised a few times with racist words scribbled over the windows. The only thing that bothered me was the look on my parents faces, especially my father.

My father had a family, he needed to provide. I remember he found employment at a wielding shop, when returning home from work he was in a sombre mood. He shut his eyes and couldn’t open them! He was targeted at work for the colour of his skin. He wasn’t given health and safety equipment he was welding without safety goggles. Luckily, he didn’t lose his sight. I was shocked at the cruelty. It was much safer to work in mechanics fixing cars with your African friend that you would bring home for dinner from time to time.

Father, you were so very good with animals and loved nature, is that because it was so open to you back home in Uganda?

They probably understood your heart better, rather than judging you based on the colour of your skin.

The swans in the park would always quack the loudest when you got close, they would dance for you and only eat out of your palm allowing you to stroke them too. Mum used to say they sensed when you were coming and going. They would wail when you were leaving.

I remember the hedgehog you saved from under the bus. You stopped the bus, slid underneath it, coming out with the little spike in your hands, and you lead it to safety. Everyone cheered. I was beaming with pride. You laughed at the squirrels grooming themselves, licking their fur to keep clean.

You loved the zoo! Did it remind you of the Massai Mara tribesmen tending to the animals?

Mum used to sing a song called ‘kabutar ja’ (bird go, fly) was she too thinking of home?

She used to condition my hair with ‘Amla oil’ (oil made from Indian gooseberries), we use to decorate our hands with ‘mendi’ (henna) my hair would be tied in two bunches, exactly like mothers when she was young. I used to feel like an Indian princess.

These memories I cherish. Never believing what would unfold in years to come.

The ‘simba’ (lion) in my fathers’ heart had weakened, family ties disintegrated.

My father died in police custody in 1999. I was 11. He was estranged from me for a good while beforehand. Like the swan wailed every time he left, I did too when hearing of his passing.

You had a ‘diseased’ heart and alcohol. intoxication exacerbated your condition.

I have obsessively analysed your coroners report by Her Majesty’s Dr Paul Knapman. My eyes better than any magnified glass. Truth is that 1999 was a different world to now, the digital age has progressed. No cameras to verify anything back then.

You stated to the booking officer that you suffered from Asthma and were not taking anything for it.

Why did he not send the doctor to see you, especially as he sent one for the prisoner next door to you?

He regrets this as he admitted this on his transcript when interviewed, as there was an investigation to your death.

You were in clear distress as the commissioner stated to the officer who was making half an hourly check on you. That frightful night was busy, and all the cells were full. You were in breach of causing a disturbance and just needed to ‘sleep it off’.

You were declared dead after 45 minutes of resuscitation attempts at the hospital where many years later, in that same hospital your two grandsons were born in.

Father, truthfully you had already died in your cell, even though CPR was given with a fight once you were found unresponsive. You were carried on your mat onto the floor where the left side of your head was hit on the wall as the cell area was small.

The lack of training hits hard as there was so much running around being done to find the pocket mask and first aid kit before performing CPR. The emergency button was pressed by the officer after he ran out of the cell in shock.

These may be minute things, but they play a big part. Your family did not order for a private investigation, the verdict ‘natural causes’ seemed plausible to them. It was a sad event for all.

I met with the Chief Commissioner 20 years later who investigated your death. He stated too that it was a very sad event and through your case they learned lessons, as well as making sure the investigation was thorough due to ‘race’ especially as Stephen Lawrence’s case was still fresh.

He added that much has changed since 1999, his eyes watery, he asked about my mother, about if I have any children to which I replied yes. He then looked down and shook his head. He shared that he has a daughter the same age as me including grandchildren similar ages to my sons.

The sad difference is that he is alive to watch them grow. We parted reasonably. I vowed I would ‘let it go’ which I did.

However recent events split open those old wounds, hence writing this.

I cannot go back in time, even if I could I doubt I’d be able to save you. What I do to heal my wounds is imagine a different life for you. My imagination does not fail me. I keep the good memories and add alternatives to what could have been, if that makes sense.

Recently I have felt like screaming ‘we all bleed the same’ no matter what colour skin we are, status, caste, language, ethnicity, religion.

I am thankful that I have the choice and freedom, I am not shackled by caste set on me from birth, I am not ashamed of being brown, I am not embarrassed to have two beautiful sons who are of dual heritage.

I am proud. I am mostly proud to be a daughter of an Indo-African Brahmin. I am giving my father a voice through me. He was so much more than the colour of his skin, and his caste status. He was my father and I loved him.

The ‘simba’ (lion) in my heart roars for all those who have experienced injustice like this, it roars to speak up against inequality whether societal or from close networks such as family.

I look up at the turmeric son on a warm day, I feel your rays caress my face, I paint a picture in my mind of you lying under a tree eyes closed, smiling of all things good.

You are with me always, you left me with your face after all. I see me and I see you.

‘For those of you who wish to leave politics out of dealing with trauma. I wish to remind you that trauma is all about living under social conditions where terrible things are allowed to happen, and the truth cannot be told’

-Bessel van der Kolk

For my mother, father, and sons.